Shuttle Diplomacy

How to negotiate the minefield of stepfamilies in the wake of divorce.

By PT Staff, published on July 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Millions of kids will be shuttling off to spend all or part of their summer with the noncustodial parent (usually dad) and his new spouse. If past experience is any guide, there will be more fireworks indoors every day than there will be outdoors on the Fourth of July.

Stepfamilies are such a minefield of divided loyalties, emotional traps, and management conflicts that they are the most fragile form of family in America, breaking up at a rate even greater than that of first marriages. According to the most recent Census Bureau data, more than 62% of remarriages among women under age 40 end in divorce. The more children involved, the higher the redivorce rate.

Most observers agree that what trips stepfamilies up most are false expectations that they work the same old way. They can't possibly work like nuclear families. There is a built-in structural problem--the parent-child bond predates the marital bond. As a result, the new spouse usually feels in competition with the child for primacy of attention.

At a 1993 Family Therapy Networker Symposium, in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Carter, M.S.W., identified three necessities for stepfamily integration:

1. Emotional divorce. There must be adequate resolution of emotion to the ex-partner.

2. Participants have to give up the attachment to the ideal of the nuclear family and develop a new paradigm. "No matter how much we talk, we still don't do it," she reports.

3. Accept that it will take time, may be difficult, and that all family members will be involved.

Traditional roles are on the ropes in all families, but they don't work at all in stepfamilies, Carter finds. They put the new husband and the ex-husband in "a competitive struggle in which the loser pays the bills." Instead, "women who remarry must carry part of the financial responsibility."

And men who remarry must carry part of the child-rearing role. "To turn the kids over to a new wife is a set up," states Carter, director of the Family Institute of Westchester, in suburban New York. "Each parent must take responsibility for disciplining his/her own kids, and do it in conjunction with the ex-spouse."

More often, when dad's biological kids visit for summer, the "stepmother triangle" goes into high gear. He fails to serve a necessary role as gatekeeper, in which he defines to the kids his wife's relationship to them. He should convey to the kids that they must respect his new wife but that she is not a replacement for their mom--nor for him. As parent, he retains the discipline role.

If he doesn't do this, "the kids feel like they've lost both a mother and a father." Talk about an endless summer!